The Meek Cutoff and the Great American Desert: Part 2

To the emigrants of 1845 (and other Oregon Trail years), there was a very simple reason to avoid Kansas, despite its charms, and press on through the perils and difficulties of the trail to Oregon. Simply put, the Willamette Valley was part of paradise; Kansas was part of the Great American Desert.

Zebulon Pike was the first person of note to portray the Great Plains as a desert region, even going so far as to compare the plains to the Sahara. Pike wrote:

From these immense prairies may arise one great advantage to the United States, viz: The restriction of our population to some certain limits, and thereby a continuation of the Union. Our citizens being so prone to rambling and extending themselves on the frontier will through necessity be constrained to limit their extent to the west to the borders of the Missouri and Mississippi….

The term “Great American Desert” was later printed by explorer Stephen H. Long on a map completed in the 1820s. Long’s chronicler Edwin James went into some detail on this desert in his writings, further popularizing the concept.

Technically, the Great American Desert was portrayed on Long’s map as starting near the 100th meridian line. However, its threat loomed further east. As emigrants left the forests of Missouri behind them, the trees thinned considerably and the climate grew less humid. Even though they were still far from the true Great American Desert, to pioneers the beginning of tallgrass prairie marked the beginning of desert.

True, some pioneers did allow themselves to be enticed from their original purpose by the allure of the Wakarusa Valley. But most pressed on. There was no reason to stop for the deceitful promise of Kansas when Oregon was waiting. It was not until 1854 that Kansas would be opened for settlement.

Prairie Propaganda

Both the climate and the soil of the fertile Glaciated Region through which the Oregon Trail pioneers passed are well adapted to agricultural purposes. Furthermore, comparing even the semi-arid High Plains to the sandy Sahara seems like a bit of an exaggeration. So why would this area be included under the broad moniker of “Great American Desert”?

Several historians have proposed that the purpose for disparaging the regions west of Missouri was to discourage settlement, although the precise motive remains obscure. Some suggest that keeping settlers out of Kansas prevented clashes with Native Americans. Others have pointed out that the creation of new states further west tended to diminish the power of New England. Thus, it would have been to the advantage of the New England states to perpetuate the myth of the Great American Desert in school textbooks and other printed materials.

One Myth Leads to Another

Of course, when railroads began to cross Kansas, suddenly it became important to a number of interested parties to ensure that western settlement progressed rapidly. After all, railroads had to sell their land grants to fund expansion, and they had to ship large quantities of agricultural goods to support their operations. Both purposes meant that a sizable population of farmers was needed in the Great American Desert.

Of course, overcoming half a century of prejudice was not going to happen automatically. While the hospitable Glaciated Region was settled fairly quickly during the days of Kansas Territory, the rest of the state required some serious promotional efforts to counteract the stereotype.

Accordingly, the railroads poured an impressive amount of money into advertising of every kind. They printed brochures, published books, and even treated reporters to excursions. Their efforts loudly proclaimed one message—man had at last triumphed over nature and altered the climate. Kansas was the new earthly paradise.

For several decades, settlement in Kansas followed a predictable cycle of boom and bust as drought followed flood. But once the pattern of settlement began, it was never completely stifled. The discovery of the Ogallala Aquifer in the 1890s made settling even western Kansas possible. No matter how horrendous the conditions were, as during the Dust Bowl, hardy farmers rode the hardships out and remained on the land.

But again, settling northeastern Kansas was nowhere near as difficult as settling the High Plains. There is a certain degree of irony in the fact that the pioneers bypassed the best farmland of Kansas to risk their lives in the long, hard months ahead for the prospect of a better life in the Willamette Valley.